Friday, April 16, 2021

Rothbach Waterfall

8 km round trip, 200 meters elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Parking fee, Konigssee boat to trailhead with associated costs

The journey to see Germany's highest waterfall- the Rothbach- packs in so much more scenery, requiring a boat ride down fjord-like Konigssee and an easy hike past the magical waters of Obersee in the soaring mountains of Bavaria's Berchtesgaden National Park. Although this hike does not visit the high country of the Berchtesgaden Alps, it passes some absolutely beautiful scenery in the range's deep, glacier-carved valleys. This is an excellent hike for visitors to the park looking for a pleasantly gentle outdoor experience that takes them beyond the standard Konigssee boat ride. However, be warned that this is an extremely popular hike: this is one of the most beloved spots in the German Alps.

I visited Rothbach Waterfall and Konigssee during a trip to the Alps with my parents. Berchtesgaden National Park is the only national park in the German Alps and is in the extreme southeastern corner of the country; in fact, the closest city to Berchtesgaden is Salzburg, Austria. We stayed in Salzburg and made a day trip to the park, coupling a morning bus trip up to the Kehlsteinhaus with an afternoon boat ride on Konigssee and the short hike to Obersee and the Rothbach Waterfall. From downtown Salzburg, we took B150 and then B160 to the German border, where the route numbering changed to B305; we followed this road past the town of Berchtesgaden to the large traffic circle over the Berchtesgadener Ache, where we took the exit for B20, which ended at the massive Konigssee Parkplatz, a parking area with enough capacity for a few thousand cars. We paid a parking fee to park here.

From the parking lot, we headed over to the visitor center, from where we had to walk another 500 meters down a pedestrian street to the Konigssee boat dock (this distance is not included in the hike length). Along the way, we passed a Romy Schneider exhibition; my mom was quite excited about this as she had enjoyed watching Schneider play Sisi, the Empress of Austria, during movies that my mom watched in her childhood. At the boat dock, we lined up to buy tickets for the boat ride down Konigssee to Salet. In summer, electric boats leave every few minutes, heading down the lake with stops at St. Bartholomew and Salet. There were long lines for buying tickets; unless you arrive early in the morning, you should expect to wait an hour or more to buy a ticket and board a boat in the summer. Check the latest timetable before you go to plan your hike and make sure that you'll make it back to Salet before the last boat of the day.

From the boat dock, Konigssee is pretty but not particularly special. However, after our boat set out and sailed around a massive cliff to reach the main body of the lake, our mouths were gaping in amazement at the steep-sided peaks rising from the lakeshore. The lake has the feel of a fjord, with mountains soaring directly above the lakeshore and waterfalls tumbling directly into the lake. The boat made a stop at St. Bartholomew, a small village along the lake where there is a small but beautiful Baroque Catholic church. Watzmann- the third tallest peak in Germany- rose magnificently behind the church.

St. Bartholomew Church on Konigssee
The lake narrowed and became even more dramatic as we approached its southern end. Here, Schrainbach Waterfall dropped directly into the lake, a scene that evoked the Inside Passage of North America more than it did Germany. However, the Saletalm restaurants and the Salet boat dock at the lake's southern end reminded us that we were indeed in Bavaria. 

Schrainbach Waterfall flows into Konigssee
We disembarked with the rest of the passengers at Salet. There are public restrooms at this boat dock, which marks the start of the hike to the Rothbach Waterfall. The first 300 meters of trail followed the lakeshore of Konigssee south to the Alpengaststatte Saletalm, a restaurant. The views here encompassed the massive limestone cliffs across the lake, Schrainbach Waterfall, and the constant stream of boats arriving and departing from Salet.

Boat dock at Salet
The wide and well built trail crossed over the inlet where Saletbach flows into Konigssee and then began to follow the Saletbach upstream into its valley. We passed a junction with a trail leading to the Mooskaser Saletalm, a cheese shop and restaurant on the south shore of Konigssee. That trail would lead past the cheese shop to connect to alpine trails in the high country of the Berchtesgaden Alps, including routes into Austria and across the divide of the mountains to Maria Alm. Perhaps someday I'll return to explore these paths; but on the day of my visit, my parents and I stuck to the main path, which reached the shoreline of Obersee after 1 km of flat and extremely easy hiking from the Salet boat dock.

Obersee is a truly magical place. The lake's calm and clear waters had a beautiful, blue-green hue and almost perfectly reflected the mountains of the Berchtesgaden Alps that rose around it. From the boathouse at the west end of the lake, we had a stunning view down the lake to rocky limestone peaks that rose high above and the great rocky bowl that defined the head of the valley. Rothbach Waterfall was a slender thread of water dropping precipitously down the cliffs of that bowl into the forests and meadows of the valley below. Many visitors simply do this short walk to Obersee and return to Salet, which is understandable because Obersee is the most beautiful spot on the hike. However, by continuing to Rothback Waterfall, we not only got to see the waterfall but spent more time seeing Obersee from a number of different perspectives.

Waters of Obersee
We followed the trail along the south shore of Obersee. The trail narrowed substantially here as it passed through forest while tracing the lake's shoreline. Although this trail was initially flat, it was soon forced upward to cross the cliffs on the lake's shoreline. The trail climbed about 50 meters here via stairs and portions of the trail were a bit rockier; there was some fenching along this part of the trail as the cliffs on the north side of the trail dropped straight into the lake.

Rocky trail above Obersee
At the east end of the lake, the trail dropped back down to the shoreline of Obersee and came to a trail junction: the trail heading straight led to the Rothbach Waterfall, while the trail to the left headed to Fischunkelalm, a cottage that serves as a cow barn and a rest stop where hikers can buy some snacks and refreshments. Both trails eventually end at the Rothbach Waterfall, but the slightly longer route going by Fischunkelalm is more interesting and scenic, so you should consider taking that detour at least one way on your hike.

We decided to swing by Fischunkelalm on our way in, taking the left fork at the junction and then hiking along the east shore of Obersee to the cottage. From this angle, there were beautiful views back across Obersee, with the Watzmann now rising behind Obersee.

Fischunkelalm was a cottage in the middle of a large pasture at the east end of Obersee. Here, a herd of cows were grazing on the Alpine grass and lounging about. Their cowbells rang constantly as they moved and filled the air with a gentle clanging. Once we reached the cottage, the trail turned to the right and began heading uphill through the pastures, taking us past the herd of cows and their everpresent manure. As we ascended through the pastures, beautiful views of Obersee opened up behind us.

Cows grazing near Obersee
It was about 1.2 km from Fischunkelalm to the Rothbach Waterfall. The trail ascended about 100 meters here, making this the most substantial stretch of elevation gain of our day. Our surroundings alternated between forest and meadows as we approached the head of the massive bowl. We saw more grazing cows and had progressively better views of the Rothbach Waterfall as we approached the base of the massive cliffs. The trail leaving from Fischunkelalm joined back up with the main trail from Salet.

Approaching the Rothbach Waterfall
There is no officially marked end to the hike, but we chose to stop hiking when we reached a large meadow at the base of Rothbach Waterfall. From here, the trail continued on, climbing the steep walls of this mountainous bowl to reach the high country of the Berchtesgaden Alps. We instead followed a side trail that led us along the Rothbach to the base of the falls.

Rothbach Waterfall tumbled 470 meters (1550 feet) down the high cliffs defining the head of the alpine bowl at the head of the valley. The waterfall is most impressive earlier in the summer, as it is fed by snowmelt from the Berchtesgaden Alps, which have few glaciers. Arriving in early July, there was still moderate flow in the waterfall, although I've seen photos of much higher flow and assume those must have been from May and June visits. From close up, the waterfall is truly quite impressive: the main drop is about 300 meters, after which the stream cascades downhill until reaching the valley. The waterfall is tall enough that the water appears to fall in slow motion, hanging in mid-air and gently floating down the sides of the huge cliffs.

Rothbach Waterfall
The hike back was equally enjoyable, packing in more amazing views of Obersee; we had to do another 50 meters of elevation gain on the way back along the south shore of the lake. We made sure to return to the Salet boat dock before 5:30 PM, when the last boat of the day headed back up Konigssee.

This is a superbly beautiful easy hike, a highly recommended way to see Berchtesgaden National Park's limestone Alps and gem-like lakes without a strenuous physical effort. No one should skip visiting Berchtesgaden while in Salzburg and this hike is requisite when you're in this part of the Alps.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021


Gamsgrubenweg among the highest peaks of Austria
8 km round trip, 220 meters elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Grossglockner High Alpine Road entrance fee required

The mighty Hohe Tauern, a range within the Alps, climaxes at Grossglockner, the highest peak in Austria and the heart of Hohe Tauern National Park. The Gamsgrubenweg is an easy half day hike from the end of the Grossglockner High Alpine Road that delivers an incredible, close-up look at Austria's highest mountain along with stunning views over the Pasterze Glacier, Austria's largest glacier. The trail is wide and smooth along its entire length as it traverses open meadows in the most spectacular scenery of the Austrian Alps after an initial stretch in mountain tunnels. This is an easy and incredible way to experience the scenery around Austria's highest peak and reaching this hike by driving the Grossglockner High Alpine Road is half the fun.

I hiked the Gamsgrubenweg during a trip to the Alps with my parents. After visiting Salzburg and indulging in days of finding sites relevant to Mozart or the Sound of Music, we made our way south to the Hohe Tauern, which contains the highest, most glaciated, and most spectacular stretch of the Alps in Austria. The most tourist-friendly way to see this range is by driving the Grossglockner High Alpine Road, an extraordinary alpine drive in the same class as the Going to the Sun Road or the Beartooth Highway in the United States. From Zell am See, the road crosses a high pass over the Alps as it cuts through Hohe Tauern National Park and ends at the Kaiser Franz Josef Hohe, a spectacular viewpoint that takes in Grossglockner and the Pasterze Glacier. We split our journey through this extraordinarily scenic mountain region over three days, driving up the High Alpine Road on the first day from the nearby lakeside resort town of Zell am See. 

In a curious phenomenon, many Alpine resort towns have formed strong connections with tourists from certain parts of the world: Zermatt is beloved by Japanese and British tourists, while Russian holidaymakers often head to the glitzy St. Moritz. Zell am See is a popular spot for vacationers from the Middle East: the town spent recent decades advertising itself as a paradise to Gulf states and its efforts have paid off.

Driving south from Zell am See, we followed the Grossglockner High Alpine Road (Grossglockner-Hochalpenstrasse) into the Hohe Tauern, passing the town of Fusch before coming to the toll booth for the road. While the rates for driving the road are nearly as steep as the Alps, it's worth it: this is an extraordinarily scenic experience. The road climbed up from the bottom of the valley via endless switchbacks, passing through thinning forests before coming to the high alpine viewpoint of Fuscher Torl on the slopes of Edelweissspitze. The remarkable view here encompassed the high, snow-capped peaks of the Hohe Tauern, including the impressive wall of Grosses Wiesbachhorn across the valley and the summit of Grossglockner itself peeking out from behind closer peaks. Looking north out of the valley, we could see as far as the Berchtesgaden Alps and Hoher Dachstein. 

View of the Hohe Tauern from Fuscher Torl
The drive encompassed mile upon mile of high alpine scenery, with a number of alpine lakes near the road. After passing through a tunnel under Hochtor Pass, the road came to sweeping views of the Carinthian Alps. We stayed two nights at the Berggasthaus Wallackhaus, which had jaw-dropping alpine surroundings, to savor this beautiful landscape and to easily reach Kaiser Franz Josef Hohe and the Gamsgrubenweg the next day. I really enjoyed the stay at Berggasthaus Wallackhaus: the restaurant was quite good and the rooms were spacious with beautiful views of the mountains.

View of the Hohe Tauern from Hochtor Pass
The next morning, we drove the highly scenic branch of the Hochalpenstrasse that led to Kaiser Franz Josef Hohe. As the road tightly hugged the slopes of the Alps, we passed one scenic wonder after another. The glaciated peaks of the Hohe Tauern held our attention on one side of the road; on the other side, we passed the alpine shower of Fensterbach Waterfall and the calm waters of Stauseeblick, an alpine lake nestled beneath snowy peaks. On Google Maps, the Fensterbach Waterfall has been inaccurately labeled the Energiedusche Waterfall due to that phrase appearing on an interpretive sign here. 

Fensterbach Waterfall
The end of this great alpine road was at Kaiser Franz Josef Hohe, a visitor center with exhibits, food, and a very large parking garage. The visitor center is so named because Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary once visited this spot with Empress Elisabeth, known as Sisi to many Austrians. The viewing deck at the platform allows visitors to look out to both Grossglockner and the the Pasterze Glacier, a view that I had looked forward to seeing since I first saw photos of this spot in Kev Reynolds' Walking in the Alps guidebook. When Franz Joseph and Sisi visited, the Pasterze flowed past the point where the visitor center now stands and was thick enough to fill up the valley nearly up to the level of the visitor center. However, seeing the glacier on my trip was a bit of a shock: the glacier had thinned out considerably and had retreated multiple kilometers uphill from its former position.

While the view from the Kaiser Franz Josef Hohe was great, most of the many impressive glaciers in this area were still further up the valley. The Gamsgrubenweg transports hikers further up the valley with minimal effort for closer views of the mountains and glaciers. However, rather than starting in a pristine natural environment, the trailhead for the Gamsgrubenweg led into a concrete tunnel beneath the Kaiser Franz Josef Hohe. The first kilometer of the hike was through this tunnel, which was dark and damp at times but had enough lights at intervals that no supplemental light is necessary. The trail ascended gradually through the tunnel section. The tunnel has both interpretive signage about the Pasterze Glacier and an odd storytelling setup that appears to detail some sort of fairy tale; my German was not good enough for me to really understand what exactly was going on. There were a few brief breaks in the tunnel where we had excellent views up the valley to the Pasterze Glacier and the lake that has formed in the wake of its retreat. 

Grossglockner rises above the Pasterze Glacier
The excitement really ramped up though when the tunnels ended: we emerged onto open, meadow-covered slopes high above the Pasterze Glacier below. A large glacial lake was visible beneath the trail that has formed in recent years with the glacier's rapid retreat; massive calved icebergs that have split off from the glacier floated in the middle of the lake. The trail maintained its gradual uphill grade here, making a constant but gentle climb as it approached the head of the valley. The Gamsgrubenweg was remarkably wide and well maintained, making it a good trail for just about everyone.

Gamsgrubenweg emerges from the tunnels
While the trail initially passed through rockier, more barren slopes, it soon arrived at lush wildflower meadows where verdant grass was mixed with profuse fields of white flowers. We spotted a number of marmots wandering these alpine meadows. We appreciated the relative wildness of this landscape: the Gamsgrubenweg runs through Hohe Tauern National Park, where there are more protections for the landscape, while most popular tourist spots in the Alps (at least to American tourists) such as the Mont Blanc region and the Bernese Oberland are not on protected land. As such, the meadows here were populated with wildlife rather than the cows seen on many Alpine mountainsides. The trail passed by the Gamsgrube, a high alpine bowl to the right of the trail.

Wildflowers blooming on Gamsgrubenweg
Grossglockner's rocky spine rose commandingly across the valley. The peak is the highest in the eastern Alps; while it lacks some of the drama and splendor of the more famous Alpine peaks to the west (Mont Blanc, Jungfrau, or Matterhorn), it is still a thrilling sight. Likewise, the Pasterze- a large valley glacier- would likely receive more international attention if it not for the Aletsch Glacier and the Mer de Glace in the western Alps.

Grossglockner and the Pasterze Glacier
The Gamsgrubenweg delivered spectacular views along its entire length until it ended at the Wasserfallwinkel, a viewpoint of a glacial-fed stream beginning its drop towards the Pasterze Glacier below. The views at the end of the trail are actually not as impressive as many of the views along the trail: while Grossglockner rises mightily across the valley here, much of the Pasterze is hidden from view. The Wasserfallwinkel Glacier fills the valley to the north of here, but not much of it is clearly visible from this viewpoint; climate change has forced it to retreat further up its valley. It is clear that some number of visitors continue uphill from this viewpoint towards the glacier, but as the terrain ahead was rocky and still partially snowbound we chose to turn around here.

Mighty Grossglockner
The glaciers of the Alps have been devastated by climate change and the Pasterze is one of the greatest icy victims. The glacier has retreated over 3 km and lost over half of its volume since Emperor Franz Joseph visited; tributary glaciers that once flowed off the slopes of Grossglockner and into the larger Pasterze are now high and dry, disconnected and confined to Grossglockner's upper slopes. Its glory days are clearly over, so you may want to come soon if you want to see this diminished but still impressive glacier before it shrivels completely over the course of the coming decades.

The rapidly retreating Pasterze Glacier
This was a lovely and easy hike to see one of the most spectacular stretch of the Austrian Alps. Driving the Grossglockner High Alpine Road and hiking the Gamsgrubenweg are a must if you're visiting Salzburg or the Austrian Alps; it's also a slightly quieter alternative to the tourist-packed Swiss and French Alps.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Silver Star-Sturgeon Rock Loop

Mount Hood rises above the Columbia River Gorge and Silver Star Mountain
8 miles loop, 2500 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Reasonable gravel road to trailhead, Washington State Discover Pass required

The view from Washington State's Silver Star Mountain, which lies just beyond the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, encompasses at least five volcanoes of the mighty Cascade Range on a clear day. Although Silver Star is not a particularly high summit, its upper slopes are bald, opening up vast views over the surrounding area that can be accessed by just a moderately difficult hike. The summit is one of the classic outdoor destinations on the Washington side of the Portland suburbs. This hike visits Silver Star along with Sturgeon Rock, a nearby summit that is less-frequented, making a loop that delivers plenty of beautiful views.

This is one of the most scenic summits within a short drive from the Portland metropolitan area, but unfortunately accessing most of the multiple hiking routes to the summit requires a 4WD high clearance vehicle; this approach uses the Grouse Vista Trailhead, which involves the easiest drive, although it still requires travel on a gravel road. 

I hiked the Silver Star-Sturgeon Rock Loop on a clear early November day. From Portland, I took I-5 north into Washington State and then took Exit 11 for WA Highway 502; I followed Highway 502 east into the town of Battle Ground and then I turned left onto Highway 503 (10th Ave) in the center of town. Following Highway 503 north for 5 miles, I turned right onto Rock Creek Road, which I followed for 9 miles past Moulton Falls, where I turned right again onto Sunset Falls Road. In another 2 miles, I turned right onto Dole Valley Road, following the sign for the Larch Correction Center. I followed Dole Valley Road for 5 miles, passing Rock Creek Campground, and then turned left onto L-1200, a gravel road. I followed L-1200 for the final 5 miles to the trailhead, bearing right at the unmarked fork in this road and ascending into the forested Cascades via some switchbacks to reach the Grouse Vista Trailhead where the road comes to a saddle. The trailhead is within the Yacolt Burn State Forest, so a Washington State Discover Pass is required to park here.

Heading north from the trailhead on the trail departing across the road from the parking area, I started an ascent into a standard Northwest forest and immediately came to a trail junction. Here, I took the left fork for the Tarbell Trail; I would return on the Grouse Vista Trail on the right, which makes a beeline along the ridge towards Silver Star. The Tarbell Trail stayed fairly level for the next 1.6 miles as it contoured on the lower slopes of Silver Star, passing through forest the entire way on a well-built path. There were just a few breaks in the trees that provided glimpses of Pyramid Rock and the ridges of Silver Star rising above. At 1.6 miles, the Tarbell Trail crossed pretty, cascading Rock Creek by bridge. 

Cascades on Rock Creek
After crossing Rock Creek, the Tarbell Trail began to ascend. About a quarter mile after crossing Rock Creek, the trail entered a recent clear cut. For the next mile, the trail shifted in and out of this clear cut zone as it ascended the slopes of Silver Star Mountain via switchbacks with a moderate grade, crossing a gravel logging road at multiple points. The clear cuts here opened up the first real views of the hike, which extended over the valley of Rock Creek and the patchwork clear cuts on the nearby mountains as well as large outcrop of Pyramid Rock to the east.

Ascending through a clear cut on the way to Sturgeon Rock
After 500 feet of elevation gain from Rock Creek and just under 3 miles of hiking from the trailhead, I came to the west ridge of Silver Star. Here, the Tarbell Trail met the Sturgeon Rock Trail; I took the right fork at this junction to follow the Sturgeon Rock east along the ridge. The Sturgeon Rock Trail, an old road trace, made a stiff ascent through the forest along the ridge, climbing about 750 feet in just 0.7 miles. When the trail turned right to leave the top of the ridge and follow the south side of the ridge through a clearing, I looked for a spur trail to the left side of the trail. This unmarked path led steeply uphill along the ridge, soon emerging from the forest onto the clearing surrounding Sturgeon Rock as it climbed 350 feet in about 0.3 miles. The steep, narrow trail ascended along the open ridge to the rocky summit. A bit of scrambling was necessary to reach the very top of Sturgeon Rock, although you can see plenty of excellent views from the areas around the summit.

Sturgeon Rock
Views from Sturgeon Rock were excellent: Silver Star's mix of forested ridges and its bald summit closed off views to the east, but to the west there was a pretty view of Portland, the Columbia River, and the Coast Ranges. The snowy profiles of Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson rose to the south, while the three snowy sentinels of Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier, and Mount Adams stood to the north. To the north, I could also see nearby ridges and mountain slopes that were bare or lightly forested; these areas are the legacy of the Yacolt Burn, one of the greatest recorded wildfires in the history of Washington State.

Portland skyline from Sturgeon Rock
After enjoying the sweeping views from Sturgeon Rock, I retraced my steps down the spur trail to rejoin the main Sturgeon Rock Trail. I continued east along this trail, which continued gaining elevation as it passed through the forest directly below Sturgeon Rock. I followed the Sturgeon Rock Trail east for another 0.6 miles after leaving the spur for Sturgeon Rock to its end at a junction with the Silver Star Trail in a clearing. At the junction with the Silver Star Trail- 4 miles from the trailhead, or 4.5 when factoring in the detour to the top of Sturgeon Rock- I took the left fork to head north towards Silver Star.

I followed the wide, well-built Silver Star Trail north for about 250 meters with a slight ascent to reach another trail junction, this time with the Silver Star Summit Trail No. 180D. I took a right at this junction and almost immediately came to a second junction, this time with the Bluff Trail; I stayed on the Silver Star Summit Trail, heading to the right and ascending out of the forest onto open slopes. The trail soon came to a saddle on the summit ridge of Silver Star, with two peaks on either side of the saddle. I visited the lower south summit first: from this high viewpoint, a remarkable view of open, rocky ridges lay to the east, with the mighty Cascade volcanoes to both the north and the south. From, here I continued onward to the north peak, arriving at the top of Silver Star Mountain after 5 miles of hiking from the trailhead.

Silver Star, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Rainier
At the north peak- the true summit- I enjoyed the expansive views in all directions. This view encompassed just about everything I could see at Sturgeon Rock, only now I could see the remarkably sharp form of Sturgeon Rock and its basalt cliffs as well. The Oregon Coast Ranges defined the western horizon, with the Columbia River lowlands filling the space in between and the Portland skyline glittering in the morning sun. Clouds filled the Columbia River Gorge and I could see all the way to the high summit of Mount Defiance defining the end of the western gorge. Mount Hood and Mount Jefferson lay to the south. 

Many nearby peaks had the same bald appearance as Silver Star, their ridges rocky and their slopes covered by meadows rather than forests. This area was ravaged by the 1902 Yacolt Burn, the largest recorded wildfire in Washington state history. Started across the river in Oregon, a man-made fire spun out of control and leaped the Columbia River into the southern Cascade forests during a dry September, sparking a half-million acre inferno that engulfed all the forests near the Columbia River Gorge. A half inch of ash from the wildfire was deposited on the Portland streets. Fires of this size have become common again in the West, with massive wildfires of this scale striking the North Cascades in 2015 and sweeping California and Colorado in 2020. Some of the bald mountains at Silver Star remain a legacy of the Yacolt Burn: forests have not fully recovered over a century later.

Looking down to Sturgeon Rock and the Columbia River valley
Mount Adams and the south Cascades
Mount Hood
The Columbia River
After enjoying the summit's spectacular views, I retraced my steps down the Silver Star Summit Trail (180D) to return to the Silver Star Trail (180). At this junction, I turned left to follow the Silver Star Trail back towards the Sturgeon Rock Trail intersection. This time, back at the Sturgeon Rock Trail intersection, I continued on the Silver Star Trail, heading south for another half mile before descending steeply to a junction with the Grouse Vista Trail. At this junction, I took the right fork for the Grouse Vista Trail. The Grouse Vista Trail kept me out on open slopes on the southwest ridge of Silver Star, with views back towards Silver Star and Sturgeon Rock and forward to the massive outcrop of Pyramid Rock. 

Pyramid Rock
The trail passed under Pyramid Rock and continued descending along the ridge, passing through forest in spots and clearings at other times. These clearings provided nice views back to the bald ridges that I had visited previously in the hike: Silver Star, Sturgeon Rock, and Pyramid Rock. At the end of this ridge, the trail reentered the forest and began a very steep descent that ended when I returned to the Grouse Vista Trailhead. The return leg of the journey from the summit of Silver Star was 3 miles long and dropped 2000 feet in elevation.

Looking back to Sturgeon Rock, Silver Star, and Pyramid Rock
This is one of my favorite hikes in the Portland area, packing in plenty of spectacular mountain views. I only encountered a few people on the day of my hike, but you probably wouldn't expect too many people to be out on a cold, windy Veterans Day anyway. Even though Silver Star is a popular destination for Portland hikers, it is a very worthy one.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Multnomah Falls

Multnomah Falls
2.5 miles round trip, 850 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

620-foot tall Multnomah Falls is the highest waterfall in Oregon and one of the most stunning falls in the Pacific Northwest; it's also astonishingly easy to access, as it's less than an hour east of Portland directly off I-84. This beautiful double-tiered waterfall drops down the basalt walls of the Columbia River Gorge and can be seen without having to do any real hiking; the hike detailed here climbs from the base of the falls to a viewpoint at the top of the upper falls. As the falls are one of the most popular locations in the Columbia River Gorge, this hike offers a good way to see the falls while escaping the crowds at the base and at the bridge above the lower falls.

I hiked this trail in December after a rare low-elevation snowstorm paralyzed Portland and the Columbia River Gorge. My initial plan was to hike the Wakheena Falls Loop, but I-84 was closed due to snow and ice on the morning of the day of my hike, as was the Columbia River Highway, so I found myself just east of Portland, stuck in traffic with a line of tractor-trailers, with no way to head east. My backup plan of exploring Fort Vancouver National Historic Site fell apart once I discovered that the park's visitor facilities were closed on Sundays. I instead decided to take a day drive east along the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, which had stayed open despite the buildup of ice and snow in the gorge. After spending much of my afternoon touring the Bonneville Dam- the furthest downstream of the many hydroelectric projects along the Columbia River- I looked across the river and saw that traffic had resumed on I-84, so I decided that I would spend some time on the Oregon side of the gorge after all. I crossed the Bridge of the Gods into Oregon and then took I-84 west until reaching the Multnomah Falls parking area, which is sandwiched between the eastbound and westbound lanes of I-84. It's also possible to access the lodge at the base of the falls by driving the Columbia River Highway. Parking at Multnomah Falls can be very difficult on weekends and throughout the summer- in fact, it's a good idea to avoid this hike during peak tourist times as traffic jams can snarl the Columbia River Highway near the falls.

From the parking lot in the middle of I-84, I followed the underpass below the eastbound lanes of the interstate over to Multnomah Falls Lodge, where the hike started. From the lodge, a wide, paved, and flat path led about 50 meters to a clear viewpoint of this towering waterfall. The upper falls was the more impressive drop here, plunging 540 feet in a single go down a massive basalt cliff. The lower falls were much smaller, at just 70 feet tall, but still made a pretty drop down to a pool at the base of the cliffs. A pretty, arched footbridge spanned the gorge directly above the lower falls. The high basalt cliffs here were adorned with moss and on the winter day when I visited there was snow clinging to nooks in the cliff. The lower viewpoint is usually very crowded, as this is one of the most popular viewpoints in the state of Oregon.

From the lower viewpoint, a paved path led uphill to the right, making some switchbacks as it climbed steadily uphill to reach the footbridge over the lower falls in 0.2 miles. From the bridge, there was a view back down to the Multnomah Falls Lodge and the viewpoint at the base of the falls, as well as a close-up view of the towering upper falls, which were too tall to fit into a single camera frame. This is truly an impressive waterfall- in the contiguous United States, only the waterfalls of Yosemite have have combined such height with robust flow. During my visit, a wispy minor waterfall also tumbled off the cliffs to the right of the main Multnomah Falls.

Upper drop of Multnomah Falls
Most casual visitors to Multnomah Falls don't bother to go any further than the footbridge; hikers who choose to go further can experience the falls with just a fraction of the crowds. The paved path continued up the mountainside from the bridge, reaching a junction with the Gorge Trail at 0.4 miles; here, I stayed on the main paved path, making a sharp switchback and continuing uphill through forested slopes. The trail was paved but steep as it ascended through a series of switchbacks over the next 0.6 miles.

In September 2017, the forest around Multnomah Falls was badly damaged by the Eagle Creek Fire. The fire started when teenagers hiking the Eagle Creek Trail a bit to the east in the Columbia River Gorge set off fireworks in the forest, igniting an intense blaze that ripped through the Oregon side of the gorge. Hikers enjoying their Labor Day weekend were trapped by the flames and the Multnomah Falls Lodge was threatened but ultimately saved; ash rained from the sky as far away as Seattle, where I lived at the time. While the forest here was badly damaged by that fire and many of the trees that once grew on this slope are gone, the landscape is now in the process of recovering and the greenery will return. 

When I hiked here, the landscape was coated in fresh snow. This trailhead is generally accessible in winter, but hikers who come when there is snow or ice should bring traction devices like microspikes or Yaktrax, especially as the trail is quite steep.

Snow-covered trail
While ascending up the 11 switchbacks on this stretch of the hike, there were some good views out into the Columbia River Gorge. Cloud cover was low on the day of my visit, limiting the extent of views, but I was still impressed by the cliffs of Hamilton Mountain rising across the river and Beacon Rock, a large basalt outcrop rising directly above the Columbia. The Columbia River's near sea level crossing of the Cascades makes for steep terrain changes where the mountains meet the Columbia, which is responsible for the many impressive waterfalls found in the gorge, including Multnomah Falls.

Columbia River Gorge
A mile from the trailhead, I reached and then crossed a small saddle that marked the high point of the hike. From here, the trail descended slightly to a junction, just uphill from Multnomah Creek. The left fork headed off towards Larch Mountain, a local high point and the headwaters of Multnomah Creek. The right fork- which I took- was a short spur trail leading out to the Multnomah Falls Viewpoint. The trail was probably paved through here, but it was a bit difficult for me to tell due to the thick snow cover. The spur descended gently over the next 1/5 of a mile until it ended at a viewpoint at the very lip of the falls. There was a nice view at this observation platform of a very pretty cascade on Multnomah Creek just above the upper falls. After passing through this small cascade, Multnomah Creek then rushed downstream until it leaped into the air, its water droplets almost hanging in the air before wafting down to the basin far below. While I couldn't see the lower falls at all, Multnomah Falls Lodge, the viewpoint at the base, I-84, and the Columbia River Gorge were all visible. 

Cascade just above Multnomah Falls
The top of Multnomah Falls
Columbia River Gorge from the top of Multnomah Falls
On a snowy December day with just minutes of daylight left, I had the viewing platform at the top of the falls all to myself. If you come on a weekend or in the summer you'll undoubtedly have company as this Multnomah Falls is an extraordinary popular spot. Still, the top of the falls will be much less crowded than the base and the nice views of the Columbia River and the chance to see the waterfall from above make it a rewarding way to experience Oregon's tallest waterfall.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Table Mountain (Columbia River Gorge)

Mount Hood the Columbia River Gorge from Table Mountain
16 miles loop, 4200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Northwest Forest Pass required

Soaring cliffs of columnar basalt make Table Mountain one of the most impressive peaks on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge. The views from this peak are stellar, sweeping over the length of the gorge and extending to the four nearby Cascade volcanoes; however, the approach to Table Mountain via the Pacific Crest Trail somehow manages to be long, a bit boring, and extraordinarily steep all at the same time. Experienced hikers may not mind the slog to get to Table Mountain's great views, but novice hikers and visitors to the Columbia River Gorge may be better off doing a more rounded and rewarding hike like nearby Hamilton Mountain. Hikers who do choose to come will find a trail that's relatively quiet despite its proximity to Portland and observe firsthand the landsape created by the Bonneville Landslide.

The long trail to Table Mountain can be broken down into a lengthy 6.5 mile approach to the base of Table Mountain and a extremely steep loop that ascends to Table Mountain's summit, visits some viewpoints, and returns to its base in 3 miles. Although Table Mountain is just 3420 feet high, the hike starts just above sea level and the undulating trail on the approach makes the cumulative elevation gain much more substantial. The approach trail spends most of its time traveling through clearcuts.

I hiked Table Mountain during an early November trip to the Columbia River Gorge. From Portland, I took I-205 north across the Columbia River into Washington and exited onto Washington Highway 14 heading east. I followed Highway 14 past Camas, Washougal, and North Bonneville to the Bonneville Trailhead, which was on the north (left) side of the highway just across from the entrance to the Washington side of the Bonneville Dam. The trailhead was well signed from the road and had a vault toilet and parking for about 20 cars; I put up my Northwest Forest Pass here after parking.

I started the hike out on the Tamanous Trail, a gravel path which initially paralleled a railroad track in a clearing before cutting to the right and beginning a gentle ascent into the forest as the railroad disappeared into a tunnel. The trail ascended about 200 feet to gain the top of a low, wooded ridge and then followed this ridge north to reach a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail at 0.6 miles. The forest on the Tamanous Trail was reasonably nice, with some scattered deciduous trees providing nice pockets of fall color during my November visit.

Forest along the Pacific Crest Trail
Reaching the PCT, I took the left fork to follow the famed trail northbound. You might think that being on the PCT should mean that there might be some better scenery, but you would be wrong; what followed was perhaps the least scenic stretch of the PCT in Washington State. For the next 1.7 miles, the PCT passed through a series of clearcuts, so the trail surroundings alternated between tree stumps, crowded growth of 10-foot tall conifers, and forest that looked to be fourth or fifth growth at this point. Occasional views of Table Mountain, the pyramidal rocky peak with a massive basalt southeast face that was my destination of the day, were the saving grace of this stretch of hike. The trail occasionally crossed the logging roads that run through this area and there was no sustained elevation gain or loss, although there were plenty of little ups and downs as the trail traveled through an undulating landscape.

At 2.4 miles from the trailhead, I crossed a logging road and came upon Gillete Lake, one of the many small pothole lakes that dot the landscape near Table Mountain. There were nice views here of Table Mountain rising above the lake and the scene was quite pleasant despite much of the surrounding area being clearcut. Power lines ran directly above the lake, ferrying hydroelectricity from the Bonneville Dam to points east. The trail descended and circled around the lake to the north, where a spur path led to the lakeshore.

Gillette Lake and Table Mountain
Leaving Gillette Lake, the trail crossed Gillette Creek and then continued through the patchwork landscape of clearcuts. Land ownership is quite complex along the PCT in this area: there is a mix of federal, state, and private land here, with different land managers subscribing to different forestry practices. After a gentle ascent up from Gillette Lake, the PCT followed a logging road for a hundred meters before a single-track trail split off to the right of the road; be sure to pay attention for the trail here. Passing by another pond, another logging road, and more clearcut, the trail reached a well built bridge over Greenleaf Creek at 3.5 miles from the trailhead.

Bridge over Greenleaf Creek
Greenleaf Creek marked the boundary of Gifford Pinchot National Forest and the conclusion of the clearcuts that dominated the early stretches of the hike. From here on, the surroundings felt much more natural. The trail switchbacked uphill for a bit before leveling out as it contoured along the side of a hill, passing a clearing with a view of the Columbia River Gorge. This stretch of the trail, which was forested but had partial views out to the gorge, was quite pleasant. At 4.5 miles, I passed a junction with the Two Chiefs Trail, which was an old road trace. 

Views of the Columbia River Gorge from the forested PCT
The trail was fairly flat until I reached the 5 mile mark of the hike, where the trail crossed a creek and then began a switchback climb up to a low ridge. Once atop the ridge, the PCT headed north while ascending steadily, eventually intesecting a road trace; the trail and the road trace paralleled each other briefly, so following either path is fine. The trail and the road trace soon combined as I reached the base of Table Mountain and the PCT began climbing more steeply along the lower slopes of Table Mountain.

At 6.4 miles from the trailhead, the PCT came to a junction with the Heartbreak Ridge Trail, which was marked by a large information board. From here, the Heartbreak Ridge Trail broke off to the right, headed towards the summit of Table Mountain. I hiked a loop here to get up and down Table Mountain: I chose to ascend the Heartbreak Ridge Trail and then to do a counterclockwise loop around the summit viewpoints before descending on the West Table Mountain Trail and then following the PCT back to this junction. That loop only covers about 3 miles of hiking but includes over 1600 feet of elevation gain.

I turned right at the junction to start up the Heartbreak Ridge Trail. After 6.4 miles of flat to moderate hiking, the trail became serious here: this is one of the steepest trails in the Columbia River Gorge. This not just an aggressive ascent: the trail is brutally steep, eschewing switchbacks in favor for a direct, full-on assault of Table Mountain's slopes. The trail ascended a net of 1400 feet in one mile along the Heartbreak Ridge Trail and that eye-popping stat doesn't even begin to really explain the steepness: perhaps it is more useful to note that there is a relatively flat 0.4 mile stretch in the middle of this hike that actually includes some downhill, meaning that the 1400 feet of elevation gain is packed into about just 0.6 miles, a grade as steep as the trail to Aasgard Pass in the Enchantments.

The Heartbreak Ridge Trail made its first 700 feet of ascent in 0.3 miles in the forest before flattening out to reach a brushy saddle. Here, the first of this hike's multiple excellent views opened up. This saddle between Table Mountain and the lower Sacaquawea Rock had a stunning view of the mountain's immense basalt cliffs, perhaps the most massive vertical cliff of columnar basalt in the United States. The Columbia River flowed in the gorge down below, bending around Oregon's Mount Defiance to the east. Sacaquawea Rock was another sharp and impressive basalt outcrop just to the south.

Basalt cliffs of Table Mountain
After I passed the saddle, the trail descended briefly- surely the advertised heartbreak, after such a strenuous ascent- before it went right back into the relentless uphill. The final 700 feet of uphill on the Heartbreak Ridge Trail were covered in another 0.3 miles, meaning there was no time for switchbacks, with the trail plowing straight uphill first through the forest and then through a talus slope. There's not much of a real trail through the talus slope, so I picked my way through the rocks while following a number of poles that marked the route. After the trail returned to the forest, it curved to the left and continued the morale-destroying uphill until it ended at an intersection. Here, the left fork promised a return to the PCT on the West Table Mountain Trail, while the right fork led towards the Gorge Overlook. I took the right fork. While the grade on this trail was still quite steep- ascending 150 feet in 200 meters- it felt like a relief after coming off the brutal ascent of the Heartbreak Ridge Trail. At the top of this short uphill, I arrived on Table Mountain's flat summit plateau and came to the Table Mountain Trail. While the left fork here led to the high point of Table Mountain, I took the right fork first to head to an overlook over the Columbia River Gorge.

The side trail to the Gorge Overlook was tremendously scenic. The trail followed the top of a ridge that was open to the south, providing sweeping views to the southwest over the Columbia River Gorge. Towards the end of the ridge, the trail narrowed as it passed directly above the massive basalt cliffs of Table Mountain's southeast face. The trail ended when the ridge did, above the steep, thousand-foot cliffs at the top of Table Mountain's great basalt pyramid.

Atop the great cliffs of Table Mountain
The view from here was jaw-dropping; this is one of the most commanding views in the entire Columbia River Gorge. The view of the individual basalt columns on the cliffs was extraordinary. There was so much air below the viewpoint as Table Mountain's slopes plunged to the forested landscape of the Bonneville Landslide below. The Bonneville Dam held back the Columbia River and Mount Hood rose above the Oregon side of the Gorge. Views stretched west towards Larch Mountain, although forest on the northeast side of Table Mountain's ridge blocked views to the east.

Mount Hood and the Bonneville Dam
This is perhaps the best viewpoint from which to appreciate the immensity of the Bonneville Landslide, an enormous mass wasting event in the Columbia River Gorge in parts of Table Mountain and nearby Greenleaf Mountain collapsed into the gorge. This landslide- or perhaps a series of landslides- is a geoloically recent event, having occurred sometime between 1100 and 1700 CE. The slide brought down massive amounts of rock from the two peaks, filling the valley below and blocking the flow of the Columbia River. Native peoples have oral records of this event, which created a massive natural dam on the Columbia that became known as the Bridge of the Gods. The great erosive power of the Columbia eventually wore away this dam, forming the Bonneville rapids; those rapids then made this site an attractive spot for the lowest dam on the Columbia River.

The source of these massive landslides may be linked to past megathrust earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest, perhaps the 1700 Cascadia earthquake that was the last known quake of such magnitude on the Cascadia subduction zone. As the Juan de Fuca Plate is still actively subducting beneath the North American Plate, it is all but certain that more such earthquakes will rock the Northwest.

After enjoying the view from the Gorge Overlook, I headed north along the Table Mountain Trail to explore other areas of the summit. As the mountain's name suggests, the summit area is a flat plateau. I hiked to the north end of the mountain, passing Table Mountain's high point along the way in a forested area. When the main trail began to loop around at the north end of the mountain, I took the spur trail that led me to the edge of the peak's north ridge. From here, there were great views to the north and east. The views to the north encompassed the three great volcanoes of southern Washington State: Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier, and Mount Adams, rising above the forested ridges of the South Cascades. All had donned their winter snowcoats by early November.

Looking north to St. Helens, Rainier, and Adams
To the east, I could see the Columbia River flowing out of the deep gorge near Mount Defiance into the gentler landscape near Cascade Locks and Stevenson. Eagle Creek is almost directly across the Columbia River from Table Mountain on the Oregon side: that watershed was responsible for two very destructive historical wildfires. One of the worst wildfires- the Yacolt Burn- was sparked on the Oregon side of the Gorge near Eagle Creek in September 1902. The fire leaped the gorge and set ablaze a half million acres of forest in southwest Washington, casting smoke clouds that completely darkened the skies over Portland and Seattle and depositing a half inch of ash in the Portland streets. In September 2017, another fire was sparked near Eagle Creek when a teenage hiker threw fireworks into bone dry forest, igniting a 50000 acre inferno that burned much of the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge and that once again rained ash in Seattle and Portland. As of early 2021, many of the trails damaged during that fire- including the once famed Eagle Creek Trail- have still not reopened.

Mount Defiance rises over the Columbia River Gorge
After thoroughly enjoying the summit views, I completed the loop around the summit, following the West Table Mountain Trail along the west side of the mountaintop and past a large basalt ledge with good views of the volcanoes. Past the ledge, the West Table Mountain Trail started its steep descent. Shortly afterwards, I passed an intersection with a trail that led to the left back towards the Heartbreak Ridge Trail; I continued forward on the West Table Mountain Trail, which descended steeply through forest along the mountain's western south ridge. This descent was just as steep as the Heartbreak Ridge Trail: in 0.8 miles, the West Table Mountain Trail dropped 1200 feet to rejoin the PCT. As I descended, the trail broke back out into the open along the top of the rocky ridge, delivering some final views on the hike. In addition to lovely views of Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge here, I also had nice views east to Heartbreak Ridge, along which I had ascended. I could see the high overlook over the Gorge atop Table Mountain's cliffs as well as the sharp profile of Sacaquawea Rock.

Descent along the West Table Mountain Trail
Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge from the West Table Mountain Trail
The trail was composed of loose rock along much of the West Table Mountain Trail, making footing treacherous and forcing me to pay total attention on the trail. Tackling such a steep downhill grade with poor footing was just as difficult as the lung-busting ascent. When I finally exited the talus slope, I had a final steep descent through the forest before the West Table Mountain Trail ended at a junction with the PCT.

Back on the PCT, I breathed a sigh of relief as I returned to a properly graded trail. I followed the PCT gently downhill through the forest on the lower slopes of Table Mountain and passed the Heartbreak Ridge junction after a half mile; from there, I retraced my steps for the final, long 6.4 miles back to the trailhead. I saw just a single other hiker all day, although I'm sure that this hike will be a bit more popular than that in summer. I rewarded my long day's effort when I returned to Portland with dinner at Bollywood Theatre (it was okay) and by watching Alex Honnold climb El Capitan in Free Solo.

The views atop Table Mountain are magnificent, but I'm still not prepared to recommend this hike to most people. The neverending approach and its ugly clearcuts and the brutal steepness of the Heartbreak Ridge and West Table Mountain Trails combined to make this a tough hike. I'm glad I saw Table Mountain's sweeping panoramas but I'm in no hurry to return to this corner of the Columbia River Gorge.